Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world.
Endgame – Nell
What I was trying to do was teach,
to impart some bit of wisdom
about the immensity of human suffering,
attempting to let the kids
in on an important secret
that they were not yet old enough
or experienced enough to comprehend.
I would be the sagacious guide,
allowing them a quick peak
at some bleak time in their futures
when they would be faced
with something unthinkable
that they’d have to tackle alone,
while the rest of us,
doing little or nothing to help,
would be secretly grinning
at our own good fortunes
as if we were exempt from such things,
as if going on with our own small lives
were something permanent.
I was sure this was where Beckett was going
and I wanted the kids to get it,
and to feel the rush
of having learned something important
that morning in my class.
But once again that was not the case,
once again I was the student
and these 15 year old kids were conveying
something far more important to me
than my tired lessons about
sucking marrow and contributing verses.
Their instruction had to do with
laughter and silliness and play,
things they were very reluctant to part with
even though every judicious adult they knew
seemed to be trying to discourage such things
out of some haughty sense of entitlement
based on nothing really
beyond hours spent
amid the confusion and mystery.
But the kids read Endgame a little differently.
It began with Kaila who, through tears,
told the story of her Grandpa’s funeral,
eager to let me know that she got Beckett,
eager, as is the way with kids,
to please and be praised.
It seems that her Grandpa had quipped
about wanting a parade at his funeral –
little leaguers, high school band,
cop cars and fire engines,
the street lined with people
holding little American flags
or fluorescent blue cotton candy.
And right around the time Father Bill said,
Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,
a sound rather like a World War II
air-raid alarm splintered the somberness,
as the moan of keening sirens drew closer.
The fire alarm in the church had been set off,
and although Father was trying to continue
with his sober task,
the turning heads and the whispers in the air
made it impossible,
as did the rumble of trucks
squeaking to a stop by the front doors,
and the eight fully clad firemen bustling in
suggesting as respectfully as possible
that everyone leave immediately.
And everyone did,
a parade out the church’s arched front doors,
Uncle Tommy pushing Grandpa
and humming El Capitan
just loud enough to make it official.
Mary had been inspired by Kaila’s story,
and with glistening eyes,
she talked about her Old Auntie Agnes who,
while reaching to pluck a lily
from the top of her sister’s casket,
stepped between the straps supporting the box,
and fell through, straddled and bouncing
a lopsided bounce,
her skirt up around her waist,
a rare stunned look of defenselessness
engraved into her face,
and everyone’s anguish eased
to a suppressed giggle.
Then Bekah raised her hand shyly.
She wanted to tell us about
how her family had decided
it would be a good idea,
because her Uncle Bobby was a fisherman,
for everyone to wear one of his lures
on their lapels or blouses
as a way of paying respect
to him. She talked about how
everyone was crying, of course,
but there were funny stories and complicated hugs
that would become the stuff of legend,
all the sad people
hooked impossibly together,
fabric tearing, fingers pricked,
laughter drying their tears,
their hearts still beating sadly
just beneath their lures.
Peter, the funniest kid in the class,
could barely contain himself.
He was bouncing at his desk,
all wound up and champing to tell his story.
He had been given the honor of reciting a prayer
at his dear grandmother’s funeral.
At the gravesite his eyes brimmed with tears,
and he fought back a nervous adolescent smile
as Father Louie handed him
his grandmother’s cremation casket.
Peter tells us that the little casket
looked very much like his Bushnell binoculars case.
He tells us his grandma was tall,
even for an old woman,
and he tells us, through giggles,
that she was not, “…how shall I say it….” skinny.
And yet here he was holding a binoculars case
with his Grammy inside.
To his dismay he found this amusing,
which did not help his nervous grin fade,
but he managed to compose himself.
He had memorized the prayer,
and it was time.
The grieving family waited sadly, proudly.
Peter gathered himself with a deep cleansing breath,
looked down at Grammy,
and there before the gloomy and teary eyes
of his entire family
was stricken by a kind of shock
he didn’t know could exist.
How could this be?
His panic began to erupt.
His mother noticed immediately
that there was a problem with her boy,
and just as she moved her lips to speak
Who in the goddam hell is Ernest Cunningham?!"
Father was shocked and began to mumble,
and a buzz sizzled through the crowd.
Imprinted on the binocular case were the words
In Loving Memory of Ernest Cunningham.
Stunned, Peter placed Ernest on the ground.
Father anxiously dialed his cell phone
and the relatives watched with grave interest.
Grammy, it turned out, was on the front seat
of a hearse in Brockton, Massachusetts.
As you can imagine,
the Cunninghams were not happy.
They wanted their Ernest back immediately.
By the time the bell rang
a lesson had been learned,
just as I hoped,
and once again I was the beneficiary
of that innocent insight.
The kids’ sense of Nell’s comment
was that in the midst of our being
battered by suffering,
some force, some thing that was meant to be,
will rescue us with humor,
heal us with stories,
cover us with the balm of mirth,
and everything will somehow be OK.
Here we were, an old man
and a bunch of kids,
laughing in the face of death,
assured for the moment
that no matter how heartbroken we may become,
there is always a way to celebrate,
always a place in us for joy,
always room for fits of passionate laughter
about all the things that just might happen
and the things that already have.
Mister, Mister, pleasing to help me.
I am needing to speaking on someone
I go with Eddie out once,
just once, Mister,
and I do fok him, ,
but I only fok him once
and I am not told no one
and I knowed she is not telled no one.
But Eddie the big mouth
telled whole school
that I fok him five time,
five time, Mister!
And now all boys
are wanting to go with me
and I know
What advice could I possibly
offer this young girl
who told me once
that back in Poland
she and her mother
would pack a lunch,
carry a big pail of sudsy water,
and with hands red and cold
spend the day
at her grandmother’s gravestone,
polishing the long letters of her name
with a toothbrush,
sit there in that silence
listening for wisdom
about a strange new country,
a big shiny school,
and boys who would swoon
when they heard her speak.
John L. Stanizzi teaches English at Bacon Academy and Manchester Community College in Connecticut. In 1998, The New England Association of Teachers of English named John as New England Poet of the Year for 1998. In December of 2008, Garrison Keillor read a couple of his poems on The Writers Almanac. His work has recently been published in The New York Quarterly, Tar River Poetry, Rattle, and The Wild Goose Review. He is the author of two books – Ecstasy Among Ghosts (now in its 3rd printing) and Sleepwalking, both from Antrim House (www.antrimhousebooks.com).